I. The Fu-go Project

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That silence did not long survive the six American deaths near BIy, Oregon, on May 6, 1945—nearly a month after the last balloons had lifted off Japanese soil. On May 7 the Klamath Falls (Oregon) Herald and News reported that Elsie Mitchell and five children had been killed while on a fishing trip by an explosion of “unannounced cause.” “One of the party found an object,” it continues, “others went to investigate, and the blast followed.” There were no other details. There was no speculation in the news media about the cause of the explosion. Further reports were limited to a single account of a mass funeral for four of the blast victims. Two weeks later the government abandoned its censorship campaign and the Navy and War departments issued a joint statement describing the nature of the balloon bombs, and warning people to avoid tampering with strange objects. Because the attacks were “so scattered and aimless,” it was believed they posed no serious military threat to the United States. The announcement stressed “that the possible saving of even one American life through precautionary measures would more than offset any military gain occurring to the enemy from the mere knowledge that some of his balloons actually have arrived on this side of the Pacific.”

In 1949 the soundness of the censorship campaign was further questioned when the U.S. Congress approved a bill providing compensation of twenty thousand dollars to the families of those killed at BIy. Although the Senate Judiciary Committee maintained that no Army personnel were directly responsible for the deaths, it insisted that the Army and other services were “aware of the danger from these Japanese bombs and took no steps, for what may have been valid reasons, toward warning the civilian population of the danger involved.”

Although the American news black-out rendered it difficult for the Japanese to assess the effectiveness of their Fu-Go project, it was not the principal cause for the termination of the mission.

By April of 1945 Japanese ground crews suspended further balloon launchings because American B-29’s were destroying important hydrogen sources. General Kusaba reported: “To my great regret, the progress of the war was faster than we imagined. Soon after the campaign began, the air raids against our mainland were intensified. Many factories that manufactured various parts were destroyed. Moreover, we were not informed about the effect of Fu-Go throughout the wartime. Due to the combination of hardships we were compelled to cease operations.”

In the five months that they drifted over American soil, what did the balloon bombs accomplish? Was the mission, as The New York Times described it, a “humiliating failure” that should have been awarded “first prize for worthless war weapons”?

The total cost of the Fu-Go project has been estimated at $2,000,000, with each balloon estimated at $920. Thus, in comparison with other military weapons, the balloon bomb was remarkably inexpensive, and one historian has assessed the campaign as an economic success that “gave the Japanese a good return on their investment.” The bombs, he continues, “were a headache for Canadian and American military and security people and created more paperwork and disrupted more routine than any other Japanese attack against the North American mainland. … The money, material, and effort expended in defense and investigation caused more time and monetary damage to the Allied war effort than the two million dollars the Japanese spent to build, equip, and launch the balloons.”

The Army had to train a large number of soldiers for the “Fire Fly Project,” an extensive plan to combat forest fires. By May of 1945 American Forest Service personnel in the Northwest were supported by three thousand Army troops, including the 555th Parachute Infantry, a battalion of three hundred combat-ready paratroopers, backed up by thirty-nine airplanes.

And in one instance, the Fu-Go project came close to achieving an effect beyond the wildest hopes of the Japanese.

At the Hanford Engineering Works in the state of Washington, a project of utmost secrecy was taking place: huge reactors were turning out radioactive uranium slugs that were to be used to manufacture plutonium for atomic bombs. Engineers had taken extraordinary precautions to prevent a variety of possible mishaps, but the one they most feared was a cutoff of water needed to keep the reactors at safe operating temperatures. Electrical power for the cooling pumps came from generators at the Bonneville or Grand Coulee dams. Interruption of flow for even a fraction of a second would create such a build-up of heat that the reactor might collapse or explode.

Suddenly, on March 10, 1945, the worst happened: a power failure occurred. Immediately, safety controls were triggered and current resumed, but the entire plant was shut down for one-fifth of a second. It took scientists three days to bring the reactor piles back up to full capacity, but they welcomed the incident because, as one witness later reported, “it proved that all safety arrangements, never before tested in an actual crisis, were working beautifully.”

An accident of calamitous proportions had been averted, but what caused the mysterious shutdown? A Japanese balloon, descending upon the Hanford area, had become tangled in electrical transmission lines, short-circuiting the power for the Hanford reactor pumps.